Over Thanksgiving break I took a trip to Universal and finally got the full Diagon experience as a guest. Now, I had seen the place before obviously but this past week was the first time I went and actually looked around and did everything (one of the people in my party was a pretty big Harry Potter fan). I figured I'd write a review up since I'm bored and hungover, wallowing in misery after driving to Tallahassee just to see us lose to a bunch of scumbags :fist:
But I digress. This is from the perspective of a NON-Harry Potter fan, after all the initial hype has worn off. I also had a buddy who had worked in Diagon over the summer, which lent some interesting info. And there are spoilers, in case you still haven't been.
For starters, this is, without a doubt, THE most immersive theme park land I have ever been in. Once you step inside it's possible to COMPLETELY forget that you're in Orlando, much less Universal Studios. This place feels like its own park. Granted, the Gringott's extended queue does kill some of that, but in the actual land the place is incredibly immersive.
The Hogwarts Express
--The Hogwarts Express starts out pretty cool--I really liked the train station queue and even as a non-fan I can appreciate the incredible scale of the station. I also thought the walk into the wall effect was clever. However, the actual ride sucked. I HATED the fact that I had to actually wait in line for it (this past trip was my first time on it). I think this attraction is my least favorite in the resort, the only one that I actually will want to skip. True, I'm not a HP fanboy, but I still get most of the references (my girlfriend has made me watch all of the movies so I still get what's going on). I just thought that it was such a joke of a 'ride'. All that build-up in the queue for no payoff. The cabin 'effects' ended up being nothing more than mere lighting changes. The projections have been done before. Watching the window even made me feel a bit nauseous and I don't have a problem with simulators EVER. I just hated how there was basically nothing to it--it felt as if the designers REALLY wanted to implement the train on the outside somehow but had no idea how to execute the inside; instead, they just kinda said "hey, let's throw in some dementors, a few out-of-place characters, and then boom that's that.". It was boring, poorly-done, and just unnecessary in my opinion. I don't think I've ever been more disappointed in a theme park.
Escape from Gringott's
--I've heard some underwhelming reviews for Gringott's, but I can't for the life of me figure out why. I LOVE this ride. First of all, there was a lot more roller-coaster than I thought there would be. The tilt track in the beginning was great, I thought it was mild enough to not overpower the ride, but intense enough to provide a good unexpected thrill. The speed coming off of it really impressed me as well. As for the bulk of the ride, I liked it a lot. This is BY FAR the best use of 3-D in the resort, so the use of the technology did not bother me here at all, nor did it strike me as repetitive. Also, the actual physical sets through the ride were stunning…I have yet to catch any dead space. There's one part where there's a real rock wall with an elf or goblin or whatever you call those guys projected on to it…to me, it looked real at first. Also, the inclusion of other tracks above and around you is a great, ingenious touch. The implementation of 3-D and sets is SO good. I also really, really liked the ending, and again, was taken off guard by how "roller-coaster-y" it was. And to top it off, the queue line is an attraction within itself--seriously, the first room is ridiculous in its scope.
I do have some minor complaints. The storyline is a bit hard to follow and seems rushed. However, I came expecting that as I don't know what's going on in any of the Harry Potter movies anyway. I'm also too busy admiring what's going on around me to really even care. Also, I don't like how you enter and exit in the same place…the queue and elevator do such a painstakingly good job of selling the fact that you're underground, and yet the exit is a flight of stairs down to ground level. A separate exit platform would've been nice to keep the illusion going. This is a bit of failed storytelling I think; like with the HE, it's like someone thought of a really cool idea but no good way to pull it off. Fortunately, the rest of the ride is so awesome that it's not that important.
is beautiful, BUT it's not perfect. I had no desire to spend more than fifteen minutes looking around. Even Knockturn Alley, while cool in theory, doesn't really have anything to do inside besides shop and cool off. And here's what I think the problem is. As well-themed as Diagon Alley is, a London back alley is an inherently boring theme. At the end of the day, I'm just looking at buildings. Wonky buildings with weird angles, yes, but still buildings nonetheless. Aside from the dragon, there's nothing otherworldly about it besides the fact that the architecture is off-balance and the colors are strange…and even the dragon is just a static figure, and even though it breathes fire which is awesome, it's just a statue.
The original Wizarding World has the castle and the snowy roofs coupled with a small English town vibe, something that's unique and entertaining. Cars Land has immaculate rock work that truly transports you to a place outside of Anaheim. Hell, even the a Bug's Land, while short on good rides, sells you on the idea that you're shrunken which is cool. Diagon Alley…well, yeah, I guess it's a magical place but nothing really sells that idea besides some of the names on the buildings and the description in the park map. Yes, it is EXTREMELY immersive, it's just not immersing people in anything particularly exciting. Granted, my Harry Potter fan friend was absolutely smitten by the place, but to the average theme park guest (which is what all parks should be catering to, IMO) this was nothing more than a colorful concrete slab. I'm not even an "average" theme park guest, as I really appreciated the insane amount of detail that was in the place, but even as a theme park dork I was bored soon.
--ok, I have no problem with theme park shops, especially when they're as well-themed and true to a source as the Diagon Alley shops were. However, this area is just too reliant on them. Now, in my experience at Universal I have heard that despite the wild success of Diagon Alley, the place was not the super smash that it was expected to be. My former team member buddy also mentioned something about his store never quite hitting the daily budget goals (I forgot where it was that he worked). Now, I'm just a guy who is going for his BS in Tourism/Hospitality Management, but from what I do know this doesn't surprise me. The merchandise is accurate to a fault--while the occasional super fan will buy thousands of dollars worth of this stuff, even my Harry Potter buddy didn't really care to look around. Some stuff is just so specific to the franchise that its value is lost on the average theme park guest. Now, I've seen Universal's numbers for last summer and they were huge, so why is it that Diagon was "under"(and I say that in quotations because the place was still a super huge success)performing? While I originally thought that the World Cup took a lot of South Americans (the Orlando parks' bread and butter) away, I think another problem is that the merchandise is overwhelming and not appealing enough to the masses. While the stores are GREAT to look around in just because of how well-designed they are, the stuff they're selling is just too out of left field I think. Again, just my opinion after a few years of college doing marketing research and tourist behavioral patterns. Maybe I'm just a stupid Muggle who doesn't appreciate good wizard gear
At the end of the day, Diagon is a PHENOMENAL addition to UOR. The fact that you can go in and completely forget you're in a theme park is a huge triumph in the world of theme park design. I mean, even in WWOHP Part 1 you aren't truly removed from the rest of the park--this is a completely different feeling. And Gringott's is easily one of my favorite theme park rides that I have ever been on. However, I would be lying if I said I wasn't at least a tiny bit disappointed as a non-fan. In Cars Land, despite not really caring about the movies, I really enjoy the landscape and '50's Americana feel. Even in WWOHP at IOA I am a big fan of the otherworldly theming elements. But in Diagon Alley, almost every detail seems to be a bone thrown to the fans. Yeah, the dragon and ride are awesome, but other than that it's not much to me. If there were no Harry Potter name attached to WWOHP Part 1 I would still enjoy it, and it would still be a great theme park land. However, here, if you removed all the Harry Potter references the place would get really old really quick.
For me, I'm glad that it was built because I will be sure to ride Gringott's every time I go. But for those of us who aren't Harry Potter super fans, it's a one and done.